Callen: School choice is quickly becoming mainstream


Across the country, from the nation’s capitol to state capitols, school choice policies are on the move. And for good reason: parents want more high quality choices for the education of their children.

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia permit charter schools and more than 60 private school choice programs are in place. In Mississippi, lawmakers have enacted three school choice programs in recent years: our charter schools law, the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program, and the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship program. School choice is quickly becoming mainstream.

And while the laws and policies vary between the states, supporters of school choice share one common belief. We believe in the radical idea that every parent should be able to choose where their children go to school.

But why is this idea so radical? Every day those of us who are blessed to be parents make choices about how to care for the needs of our children. We research pediatricians, we investigate babysitters, and we stand in the aisle at Kroger to compare which baby shampoo will produce fewer tears.

Yet, when it comes to the education of our children, many have no choice.

I have four children and each one has unique gifts, interests, and learning styles. I’m positive each of the 480,000 students in Mississippi’s public schools are also one-of-a-kind. Students learn in dramatically different ways. So why has our education system failed to keep up with the substantial advancements in customization and personalization experienced by other sectors?

For more than a century, most children have attended the district school to which they were assigned based on the location of their parents’ home. For the most part, children are assigned to a grade level based on the year they were born and are expected to advance at roughly the same pace as their same-aged peers across all subjects—a system that bores advanced students while others struggle to keep up.

Assigning students to schools based solely on their neighborhood and the year that child was born ignores the vast differences in students and educational settings. This system results in countless students being mismatched with the most appropriate setting for their individual needs.

This Industrial Age “factory model” of education served a purpose in a bygone era, particularly when we were trying to produce factory workers. But it is woefully inadequate for the educational needs of the Information Age. What’s needed today is an education system tailored to the learning needs of each individual student rather than some imagined “median” child.

Because of school choice, children like Lanna, a seventh grader from Pelahatchie, can now get the services she needs at New Summit School in Jackson thanks to the Special Needs ESA law. School choice has helped children like Drew, a sixth grader from Jackson, thrive at Reimagine Prep Charter School thanks to the law permitting charter schools in Mississippi.

No one educational setting is necessary better than another, but the best way to ensure students are matched with the most appropriate setting is to allow parents – who know their children best – to select their school.

This is why we celebrate National School Choice Week, an annual event recognizing every type of education option for children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

This week, students, teachers, parents, and community members across the country are marking the occasion by holding events in classrooms, community centers, and state capitols. One of the more than 20,000 events that will take place is in Jackson at the state capitol.

Please make plans to join us on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. when we hear from Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, parents, school leaders, and many others as we celebrate choice in education.

This op-ed ran in the Clarion-Ledger.